Testimony to NYC Racial Justice Commission (October 2021)

Testimony to NYC Racial Justice Commission

  1. Unfair displacement of local residents in gentrifying neighborhoods

Overview

Due to the high real estate prices in New York City, residents from neighborhoods of color, such as Harlem, are often exposed to risk of displacement and homelessness. To protect these residents and to help preserve their culture, the government must offer incentives and implement governance that will ensure residents’ access to quality affordable housing in their neighborhood. 

Recommendation

  1. To prevent displacement of residents or homelessness, city charter must mandate a greater proportion of affordable housing must be set aside for local residents of districts at risk of gentrification. For example, buildings in these gentrifying districts can increase the required percentage of affordable units reserved for local residents from 40% to 80% 
  1. Too often “affordable housing” is not really affordable to the local residents. City charter must require that building height associated with zoning and tax incentives associated with Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) ensure adequate supply of deeply affordable housing units for residents with low AMI (Average median income), if there is such a need. To enable this, for example, the city can develop its own AMI scale tailored to specific neighborhoods and their various AMIs.
  1. Overall, the city does not have sufficient deeply affordable housing units and since the majority of the residents who need such housing are residents of color, they are exposed to the risk of homelessness. Every few years, the city charter should require a holistic review if current Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and zoning regulations are (1) providing sufficient incentives to build adequate housing units in all districts (2) helping to reduce reduce racial segregation of New York City’s population
  1. The majority of residents in NYCHA housing are people of color. The severe deterioration of the living conditions in NYCHA housing over the last decade means children of color are disadvantaged relative to their wealthier counterparts. Too often they are exposed to lead paint, coaches, rats, contaminated water, polluted air, leading to poor health. For example, the rate of asthma of children in NYCHA housing is significantly higher than their counterparts. So NYC charter must mandate a sustainable maintenance plan for NYCHA housing. 
  1. Irreversible over-concentration of social services and supportive housing

Overview

Social justice means fairly distributing social burden as well as social goods, so that no one district is over-burdened with the less desirable elements of maintaining the health of our society, such as garbage trucks, waste treatment plants, homeless shelters, and drug treatment facilities. While all these services are critical, concentration of them in one district would unfairly disadvantage that district’s residents. It is the government’s role, then,  to counter such oversaturation and to address any tendency toward it.

Over the past decades, inadequate government oversight and/or attempts to provide services at a lower cost have led to an excessive concentration of adult-only homeless shelters and drug treatment clinics in East Harlem and Central Harlem. As of 2019, East and Central Harlem host 14% of NYC’s  adult-only homeless shelter population and 18% of its methadone patients. East Harlem is the most impacted; East Harlem has 1.5% of NYC’s population but hosts 14% of NYC’s methadone patients and 10% of NYC’s adult-only homeless shelters. Even if homelessness and drug use were more prevalent in East Harlem than in other neighborhoods, such disproportionate allocation would be multiple times beyond what East Harlem needs, not a mere 20-30% more. East Harlem also has the highest concentration of NYCHA housing in NYC’s 59 districts.

Recommendation

To reverse decades of systemic racism, the NYC government must redistribute these services to other districts by making these requirements in city charter:. 

  1. All placements and, importantly, expansion of individual homeless shelters should go through community board approval, and data should be presented to demonstrate that the specific district’s residents, rather than the whole of New York City, have such a need. Prior to such approval, the government and the district must assess whether similar funds can be used to offer homeless individuals better options, such as rent vouchers. 
  2. Similarly, all placements and, importantly, expansion of individual drug treatment centers should go through community board approval, and data should be presented to demonstrate that the specific district’s residents, rather than the whole of New York City, have such a need. Prior to such approval, the government and the district must also assess whether similar funds over multiple years can be used to pay for better forms of treatment, such as buprenorphine. Related to drug treatment centers, City charter must require:
    1. Siting and expansion of drug treatment centers must also undergo a public Need Assessment Review conducted by experts. This is the practice in other states but not in New York (see Tennessee, South Carolina, Connecticut, Virginia). This assessment would counter private interest’s  tendency to oversaturate neighborhoods of color that offer lower real estate costs.
    2. Providers must implement Neighborhood Engagement Plans to ensure regular and transparent processes and governance in addressing neighborhood residents’ concerns about the facilities’ impact on the neighborhood’s quality of life.  The effectiveness of the provider in addressing neighborhood concerns must factor into the granting of any contract renewal  (see Arizona, Virginia)
  3. Zoning reform is required:
    1. A specific zone should be set aside for out-patient opioid dispensing facilities due to the high risk of diversion of opioid into the neighborhood, which can attract drug dealers. In contrast, liquor stores and night clubs are regulated by such zoning restrictions
    2. Zoning law in NYC focuses on height and form of building and insufficiently on the specific use of land. Holistic city plans with specification of land usage can be leveraged to distribute social services fairly.
  4. At least once in a decade, the city needs to conduct a holistic and transparent review of social services needed by each district and determine whether certain districts have an excessive concentration of one type of social services or a combination of social services. This assessment should use a data driven approach which should include the original residence districts of currently homeless people and incarcerated individuals.
  5. New York City must commit to processes that will not only reverse the existing conditions that are the result of decades of systemic racism, but also offset the great damage that has been done. For example, such districts should receive a disproportionate amount of funding for education, needle pick-up, and sanitation.

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